Essential Tools for the 21st Century Musician: Technology

In my previous post about tools for the 21st Century Musician, I discussed improvisation as probably the most useful tool musicians can be using. In a way, technology is even more indispensable. Unless our voice is our primary or only instrument (and even then there are exceptions), then nearly everything we make music on is the result of some level of technology.  Whether we’re talking about the technology of carved bone flutes and dried skins over a wooden frame, or the highly advanced craft that luthiers use to carve/mold stringed instruments, or the ability to build circuitry or program for electronic instruments or computers, there is always some level of technology involved in the making of musical instruments.

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Sampling Bias in discussions about Classical Music


This might as well be placed out there since we have Andy Doe’s recent post calling us to challenge the Classical Music Crisis folks.

As I said in a previous post, we are generally terrible at reasoning with numbers–especially big numbers. This post deals more with the collection of the numbers inflects the Classical Music Crisis discussion. All this talk about the decline, dying, or death of Classical Music is mostly fueled by Sampling Bias.  While I generally don’t like using Wikipedia as a source for quotes, its description of Sampling Bias is perfectly serviceable and pretty much textbook:

In statistics, sampling bias is a bias in which a sample is collected in such a way that some members of the intended population are less likely to be included than others. It results in a biased sample, a non-random sample[1] of a population (or non-human factors) in which all individuals, or instances, were not equally likely to have been selected. If this is not accounted for, results can be erroneously attributed to the phenomenon under study rather than to the method of sampling.

As I mentioned in my Choral Organizations and the “Classical music is the sum of all its institutions” posts these discussions are shaped more often by the organizations which are prominent in media (usually due to Negativity Bias) rather than the organizations that actually exist. While, as I mentioned, I doubt the number of Choral organizations is nearly as high as Chorus America claims, and I doubt each and every one of those organizations are actively performing solely Classical Music, even if a tenth of those numbers are correct then Choral Organizations would outnumber the 1800 US Orchestras (as given by the League of Symphony Orchestras) by 15 times.  Adding in the 125 or so US Opera organizations or the 150 or so Ballet Organizations won’t help much to offset the size of Choral Organizations.

I actually went back through the Pierre Keys Music Yearbooks I have and simply did a count (Ballet Organizations aren’t included in these) and found that even during the years of 1927 and 1938, Choral Groups significantly outnumbered Symphony and Opera organizations combined thought the proportion isn’t nearly as dramatic. I think it’s obvious that with the lowest overhead and operational costs, Choirs are the cheapest organizations to fund so the number of groups shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

The thing is, we have no idea what impact this has economically to “Classical Music in the US” because these organizations aren’t often discussed.  It seems strange that a group of Classical ensembles, which vastly outnumber the ones usually under discussion, have no part in the discussion about the health of the Classical Music industry.

Granted, if how we’re defining US “Classical Music” only means the typical SOBs (Symphonies, Operas, Ballets) that would be perfectly acceptable, it just wouldn’t show how much actual interest or impact what we normally call Classical Music has on American Culture.  SOBs are not a randomized sample of the Classical Music field and shouldn’t be treated as such. In other words, as the Sampling Bias definition above states, “If this is not accounted for, results can be erroneously attributed to the phenomenon under study rather than to the method of sampling.”

The other question is, what is Classical Music? While the NAI and NEA SPPA audience data tracks, say, Symphony attendance–does this include attendance to your kids High School Orchestra or Youth Symphony performing symphonic works or at State Contests?  Does this include attendance at University Orchestra events? Should we include these kinds of attendance? If not, then why aren’t we?  Is it because these are professional groups (I’ve heard some high school orchestras at the State contest level which play much better than some community and semi-professional orchestras which are surely listed amongst the 1800 League groups and included in the data for attendance).

Again, this is a form of Sampling Bias (or more precisely, Selection Bias), though a bias that might be reflected more in the survey methods since they might not specify whether or not these types of performances should be included.

I think there’s a real need to really understand what is being said, and how the numbers can be interpreted as well as the types of biases we have in the collection of the numbers and reporting of them.  For more about Biases, Fallacies, and Statistics as it applies to the Classical Music Debate, please check out this post: Preamble to Orchestra Audience Age: notes about numbers, statistics, and bias and this recent response on Facebook regarding this issue.

Negativity Bias and the “Classical Music Crisis”


Marketing consultant, Mark Schaefer, discusses how Negativity Bias can have a profound effect on how we perceive industries and businesses in a world of social media. He uses the recent #McFail incident to illustrate how the bias operates:

And even when one of their social media experiments did not go as planned, the company had something like 79,000 tweets and 2,000 of them were negative. So on one of their worst days, they had a positive sentiment analysis of 97.5 percent. In any company I’ve worked for, that would be cause for celebration.

And yet the all headlines focused on the failure. It will probably be a case study discussed for years alongside the Gap logo debacle. That may not be fair, but it’s what we need to anticipate from our society as we lay our social media plans over this layer of Negativity Bias.

In other words, the insignificant number of negative tweets had a greater impact with regards to traditional news media than the far more numerous positive tweets. This simply tells what we already know, that negative news sells much better than positive news.

Placed in the context of the Classical Music Crisis, it should be no surprise that the Doom and Gloom talk has gone back for, well, centuries. One of the reasons I posted the “Classical music is the sum of all its institutions” blog is precisely because we have this tendency to focus so much on the small subset of institutions which happen to be making the news because of how poorly they may be doing at the time. Any good news about the field gets lost in the shuffle.

But why is that? Schaefer gives one possible reason:

One of the most interesting talks at SXSW was between Billy Corgan of the alternative rock band Smashing Pumpkins, and author Brian Solis. In the talk, Corgan hypothesized that artists take less risks today because of a realization that one embarrassingly human moment will get tweeted and go viral — and possibly kill a career. Before the social web, these moments might be laughed about and become part of band legend, but today it can be career-defining. He wondered aloud about a world where artists would be nothing more than politically-correct robots.

But this is more of an Post hoc ergo propter hoc explanation. The Neuropsychologist, Rick Hanson, puts the Negativity Bias in the context of evolution:

Mother Nature evolved a brain that routinely tricked them into making three mistakes: overestimating threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimating resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). This is a great way to pass on gene copies, but a lousy way to promote quality of life.

In the context of the small number of troubled organizations, which get the majority of press, this makes much sense especially as we can see how these have been discussed. These “failing” organizations (and often the failing is simply a temporary acute instance) are almost invariably referred to as “threats” to Classical Music, or as symptomatic of the “threat” of the industry as a whole to the evolution of Classical Music (or a narrowly perceived view of the future of Classical Music).

The overestimation of threats is easy to see. What about underestimating opportunities? Since much of the discourse has to do with how much this small subset defines the whole field, then the opportunities for change are informed by the subset to the exclusion of viewing the change that is happening (as well as the things that aren’t changing much while remaining to be successful). By defining the problem this way, it’s easy to see how we can easily underestimate resources (for dealing with threats and fulfilling opportunities). Talk about declining and aging audiences, and donor fatigue would fall apply here.

The thing is, this Negativity Bias works so well in conjunction with another related bias, the Availability Heuristic. When we use anecdotes to support a point, we’re using the Availability Heuristic Bias.  When we use immediate examples that come to mind, that’s the Heuristic Bias. If those immediate examples happen to be the ones supplied to us in Negative media portrayals of select organizations in trouble due to the Negativity Bias, then I think we can see pernicious feedback loop we have going for these kinds of discussions of Crisis.

This is not to say that talk about how healthy Classical Music is are any better–simply citing examples that come to mind about great things that are happening in the field, or about organizations which are doing well, definitively show that the field is just fine and peachy. This Pollyanna-ish viewpoint (also referred to as the Positivity Bias) is just as prone to the Availability Heuristic and as I said in my previous post the negation of both these viewpoints is perfectly compatible. Both the Negativity Bias and Positivity Bias can be amplified by the Availability Heuristic.

These are just both sides of the same coin which Philip Tetlock‘s research describes regarding experts’ (in)ability to make accurate predictions:

The aggregate success rate of Foxes is significantly greater, Tetlock found, especially in short-term forecasts. And Hedgehogs routinely fare worse than Foxes, especially in long-term forecasts. They even fare worse than normal attention-paying dilletantes — apparently blinded by their extensive expertise and beautiful theory. Furthermore, Foxes win not only in the accuracy of their predictions but also the accuracy of the likelihood they assign to their predictions— in this they are closer to the admirable discipline of weather forecasters.

The discourse about the field is constantly being defined by both these sides. And the problems and/or solutions to it are constantly being informed by small subsets of the whole field which tend to rely on information given us by biases which are systemic to the groups of people (Tetlock’s Hedgehogs) involved in the discussions.

As Stewart Brand states about Foxes versus Hedgehogs

Bottom line… The political expert who bores you with an cloud of “howevers” is probably right about what’s going to happen. The charismatic expert who exudes confidence and has a great story to tell is probably wrong.

We need more Foxes in these discussions, but until then, we probably need to stop giving so much force to the Negativity Bias.  We can’t control how often bad news gets near unilateral focus in the media, but we can control how skeptical we receive the news, especially as it pertains to making big and grandiose claims about the future of this industry.

4’33” or -273°C

John Cage & Marcel Duchamp performed “Reunion” at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto on Tuesday March 5th, 1968. The composition/concept was developed by Lowell Cross with pre-modulated photo-receptors that served as gating mechanisms to receive messages of movements and to transmit sound and light. Depending on the moves of the chess pieces, the sound was cut off or rerouted to generate a kind of random music by means of the pre-configured chance operation of the players.

A remarkable letter to the editor appeared in this month’s BBC Music Magazine (December 2012: Volume 21, Number 2; pg 8) relating John Cage’s infamous 4’33” to absolute zero.  Rather than comment about it, I’ll just quote it below:


I’m not sure that Rainer Hersch is right bout the real message of 4’33” (column, October).  When I first heard the piece, I wondered why Cage (above) had chosen that particular time interval, and as a physicist/musician, I soon had the answer.  4’33” is 273 seconds, and if you listen to the piece, this is really -273, since the ‘composer’ has subtracted 273 seconds from your life.  So the title is really a pun on -273°C, which is very close to the absolute zero of temperature.  Cage gives us something close to the absolute zero of sound, but there is still a little noise in the room, just as at -273°C there is still a little noise among the atomic particles.  In case you should wonder whether I’m being serious about this, I should tell you that, according to local gossip, a musicologist from New York City has discovered a previously unknown work by Cage: Concerto for Unprepared Pianist, found in a disused aviary in Aleatoria, New York.

Keith Francis, Massachusetts

Just for fun, here is a pencil sketch portrait I did of John Cage in 1996:

“John Cage” by Jon Silpayamanant
5 x 8